The 1961 Berlin crisis was the last of the cold war Berlin crises. This time it centered on the construction of the Berlin Wall. Its creation symbolized to all that the cold war would not be a passing phenomenon in world politics. For this reason the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is seen as the symbolic ending point of the cold war. It ushered in a particularly tense period in U.S.-Soviet relations that culminated in the Cuban missile crisis, a conflict that many in the West incorrectly thought was linked to the imminent onset of yet another Berlin crisis.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev first met President John F. Kennedy in June 1961 in Vienna. The agenda included Berlin, Laos, and a nuclear test-ban treaty. As he had at the outset of the 1958 Berlin crisis, Khrushchev insisted that Berlin become a free city and that if the West refused to leave Berlin, making this possible, he would sign a separate peace treaty with East Germany. Kennedy refused, asserting that the West had a legitimate presence in Berlin by virtue of having defeated Nazi Germany. Although Kennedy thought he had stood firm against Khrushchev, the conventional wisdom holds that he did not and that Khrushchev came away from Vienna convinced that Kennedy could be intimidated.
Even before the summit conference began Kennedy and Khrushchev were ensnarled in a test of wills. Two weeks before the summit Kennedy, in a message entitled "On Urgent National Needs," asked Congress for a significant increase in the defense budget and authority to construct a civil defense fallout shelter system. Khrushchev responded to this move in early July by announcing that the Soviet Union would increase its defense expenditures. Kennedy countered in late July with the public statement that "we cannot and will not permit the Communists to drive us out of Berlin." Kennedy followed with a specific request that called for increased defense spending together with doubling the draft and calling up reserve units.
On August 13, 1961, Khrushchev played his final cards. A barbed wire fence was erected between the two Berlins. It was followed by the construction of a concrete wall. In addition to international politics, the ongoing population flow from East to West Germany continued to alarm Soviet and East German officials. Approximately 200,000 East Germans had passed through Berlin to the West in 1961 before the wall was erected. These numbers had increased steadily as tensions rose. They joined almost 2.5 million Germans who fled to the West between 1948 and 1960.
There was nothing the West could do to tear the wall down. The best it could do was to send a contingent of troops from West Germany through East Germany to West Berlin as a show of its resolve. The troops arrived without incident. In June 1963 Kennedy traveled to Berlin for a show of continued support for the West Berlin people. Speaking to a large crowd he told them "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner).
According to some the larger significance of the third Berlin crisis is that by stemming the population flow out of East Germany the construction of the Berlin Wall actually led to the long-term reduction in tensions in Central Europe because it created a situation that the Soviet Union could live with: two Germanys with stable frontiers and populations each held in check by their protecting superpower. Also of significance is the fact that this stability would cause cold war competition to move out of Europe to points in the Third World, including Cuba and Vietnam.
"Ich bin ein Berliner" Address (1963)
Address delivered by U.S. president John F. Kennedy in West Berlin on June 26, 1963, after a visit to the Berlin Wall separating the eastern and western sections of the city. Affirming his support for West Berlin as an island of freedom, Kennedy described the two-year-old wall as an offense against humanity and a demonstration of the failures of the communist system. Although freedom has flaws and democracy is imperfect, he said, "we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in." To people who believed that communism was the wave of the future or a foundation for economic progress, Kennedy issued a challenge: "Let them come to Berlin!" In 1989 East German officials began opening up travel to West Berlin, allowing sections of the twenty-six-mile wall to tumble for the first time since Kennedy's 1963 appeal to tear it down.
Let them come to Berlin.
Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us. I want to say, on behalf of my countrymen, who live many miles away on the other side of the Atlantic, who are far distant from you, that they take the greatest pride that they have been able to share with you, even from a distance, the story of the last 18 years. I know of no town, no city, that has been besieged for 18 years that still lives with the vitality and the force, and the hope and the determination of the city of West Berlin. While the wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system, for all the world to see, we take no satisfaction in it, for it is, as your Mayor has said, an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to be joined together.
What is true of this city is true of Germany--real, lasting peace in Europe can never be assured as long as one German out of four is denied the elementary right of free men, and that is to make a free choice. In 18 years of peace and good faith, this generation of Germans has earned the right to be free, including the right to unite their families and their nation in lasting peace, with good will to all people. You live in a defended island of freedom, but your life is part of the main. So let me ask you, as I close, to lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today, to the hopes of tomorrow, beyond the freedom merely of this city of Berlin, or your country of Germany, to the advance of freedom everywhere, beyond the wall to the day of peace with justice, beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.
Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free. When all are free, then we can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great Continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe. When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines for almost two decades.
All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words " Ich bin ein Berliner."